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Glad To Be Alive

They're usually men, often very young, with a history of having once been vibrantly active in life. It is that very zest for life that is frequently the undoing of it. Sometimes sustained in beach or pool dives, motorcycle or car accidents, the cause is unimportant because the tragic outcome is the same. These are people with "spinal cord injuries."

Approximately 10,000 people in the United States sustain spinal cord injuries each year. Emergency physicians, often the first to care for them, sometimes have the dark task of informing recently healthy young men that they will never move or feel their limbs again, or have control of their bowel or bladder, or sexual function. More often we meet these patients with spinal cord injuries in the months and years after their trauma. They may have minor ills that anyone can incur or they may present with complications of their paralysis such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or skin ulcers.

Treating the ailments of paralyzed patients is not usually the most difficult task. What is difficult is trying to be oblivious to the natural shock of seeing young men and women imprisoned in otherwise healthy bodies.

This is how one nurse I work with talks of his experience in caring for a quadriplegic.

"I met Todd when he was a year and half post injury. He had jumped into a pool and hit the coping. He was taking some special ed classes at college. There were several others there that were quads and paras and I had lots of time to watch how they interacted. And you know, they did a lot of laughing. And, though it's something we would never dare to do, among themselves they even joke about their disabilities. I think I found that what they really want most is to just be accepted, not as a paraplegic or a quad or a disabled person, but just as a person."

Non-disabled people often find themselves in a quandary over how to deal with the handicapped. How can anyone with any sense of empathy ignore such physical tragedy as if it were in the same class as race or color? Is it possible to be that dispassionate?

"The most difficult thing I had to deal with," my nurse said, "was the realization that this could be anybody. It could be me in that chair but for some drunk driver crossing a center line."

The non-disabled who witness the severe handicaps of paralyzed patients and think of themselves in that same situation often have the attitude that "if it was me, I'd rather be dead." However, that attitude of "better off dead" is an assumption that is grossly wrong.

A recent survey was taken of the attitudes of emergency room personnel and of those who had sustained spinal cord injuries. Among the E.R. group only 18% declared they would be "glad to be alive" if they ever suffered a severe spinal cord injury with paralysis. On the other hand, 92% of the group who actually were paralyzed declared they were "glad to be alive." Only 17% of non-disabled felt they could ever anticipate a good quality of life with a spinal cord injury, but 86% of the paralyzed group felt they had a good quality of life.

The perception of the non-disabled is that those with spinal cord injuries lead abysmal lives. That attitude, which affects how we perceive and deal with our handicapped neighbors, is what needs to be changed.

The quality of life and self-esteem of the most severely handicapped, those with spinal cord injuries, is not the grim life that the non-disabled perceive. On the contrary, research has shown that most people with severe physical disabilities perceive themselves to be enjoying a high quality of life.

"We sell these people short," my nurse said. "We treat them sometimes like little kids. They're not. They can rise to heights you can't even imagine."

Although we can never walk in their shoes, or "sit in their chairs," we can perhaps alter our attitudes and demeanor in dealing with the handicapped as "normal" people by realizing that they perceive themselves to be happy and productive individuals. And how many of us "normal" non-disabled people can say that?